Businesses build bridges to peace in mentorships

//September 18, 2009

Businesses build bridges to peace in mentorships

//September 18, 2009

Female N.J. exec shares insight with Afghan counterpartA grassroots effort to improve international relations through the business community is bringing together American businesswomen and kindred spirits from abroad. Aimed at empowering female business owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda, the program uses U.S.-based mentors to share experiences and knowledge.

Linda Magnusson-Rosario, who first volunteered as a mentor this summer, called the experience enlightening for her and her protégé.

“If you follow another woman around for five days, you are going to learn a heck of a lot more than if you sit in a classroom,” said Magnusson-Rosario, chief executive of InSys Consulting Services Inc., a technology and business consulting firm in Rochelle Park.

Magnusson-Rosario said she saw the Peace Through Business program as an opportunity for her to give back. The nonprofit Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, in Oklahoma City, created the program in 2007, and each year brings businesswomen from war-torn countries to the United States during the spring and summer.

IEEW founder Terry Neese said the program initially brought female business owners from Afghanistan to this country, and in 2008 expanded to include visitors from Rwanda. This year, a total of 29 visiting women business owners participated with mentors from around the country.

“Our international guests learn from being in the office and doing hands-on work with the American business owner,” Neese said. That includes implementing a business plan, putting together financial statements and marketing products.

She said IEEW tries to match American business owners with guests from comparable industries — the Rwandan and Afghan women have diverse business backgrounds, including making head scarves, dairy farming, and owning hardware stores, car dealerships and coffee bean plantations.

Those who complete the program update IEEW on their business growth after returning home. Sometimes, Neese learns of pleasant surprises: one participant from Afghanistan, who owns a sports ball manufacturing company, plans to run for parliament.

Magnusson-Rosario said she was in for a few surprises of her own, the first being that her protégé — Farzana Ebrahimi, a 30-year-old mother of two from Kandahar, Afghanistan — arrived stateside already six months pregnant. “This was about empowering someone emotionally, and encouraging her to keep going,” Magnusson-Rosario said.

Ebrahimi founded the Kandahar Health and Development Organization to train women in sewing, embroidery and knitting, as well as computer literacy. Magnusson-Rosario said Ebrahimi runs her business under fear of drawing attention to herself and her family.

“She takes a risk when she and her husband go to the bank to get money, because women are not supposed to do any financial transactions,” Magnusson-Rosario said.

Concern of backlash from cultural hardliners keeps Ebrahimi from openly connecting with other women who may run their own businesses. “She has savvy, she has street smarts,” Magnusson-Rosario said. “She’s surviving in a very difficult environment.”

The training Ebrahimi’s business provides to women in Afghanistan may help them earn a living, Magnusson-Rosario said. “Different NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries are subsidizing programs to help women,” she said. Ebrahimi “gets revenue from Canadian and U.S. governments to teach.”

Peace Through Business begins its work long before the women meet their mentors. Eight weeks of education in their home countries in the spring preceded three weeks of leadership development curriculum at Northwood University, in Dallas, in August, Neese said. The visiting women then traveled to their mentors’ homes, living with them and working with them on the job for five days.

Magnusson-Rosario said Ebrahimi met with the InSys team, discussed culture and took in a bit of sightseeing. Magnusson-Rosario said she learned a few lessons from Ebrahimi, as well: “[She] and I cooked an Afghan biryani” — a spicy, rice-based dish with meat and vegetables — “and invited some of my Persian clients, who speak fluent Farsi.”

Seeing the InSys staff working together introduced Ebrahimi to new management techniques. “She said in Afghanistan, there is always one boss, and that one boss tells everybody what to do,” Magnusson-Rosario said. “There is definitely a pecking order.”

The collaborative environment at InSys showed Ebrahimi a different type of business model to emulate. “Everyone had a voice, everyone could share ideas and help the organization grow,” Magnusson-Rosario said.

Neese said IEEW has caught the attention of governments in Liberia, Kenya, India and Nigeria, with the possibility of replicating the program in those countries; however, “to replicate the program takes more money,” she said.

In October, the recruiting process for next year begins, and Neese is eager to build more international bridges through the program.

“It’s hard to bomb your friends, or people you’re doing business with,” she said.

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